A health boss has warned of a “GP time bomb” which could affect thousands of patients in Preston.
Twelve out of 39 doctors surgeries in the Greater Preston Clinical Commissioning (CCG) area - almost one in three - are run by lone GPs, many of whom are coming up to retirement age.
Health watchdogs said the situation was “very unusual”, and now fears have been raised that many of the 212,500 residents living between Preston, Longridge and Great Eccleston, could be forced to find new GPs in coming years, and suffer under a stretched service.
Councillor Dave Wilson, lead member for health on Preston Council, said: “This is a serious concern, what happens when the lone GPs get older?
“There’s going to be nobody to fill the void and it’s going to put pressure on the other doctors surgeries to take extra patients.
“It’s something that nobody thinks about until they can’t get an appointment.
“I remember when I was younger, I went to a single occupation doctors and it was murder to get in.”
He added: “I think NHS England need to be thinking about this in terms of long-term planning and capacities.
“Where are the people going to go? How are they going to travel? This is particularly important for the elderly and disabled.
“I know that some people prefer to work alone, and some of these surgeries have been passed down through families, but if there’s no-one to replace them, it’s a time bomb.
“It also ends up costing more money to get locums in when they aren’t in.”
A spokesperson for NHS England (Lancashire), which commissions GP services, acknowledged that there could be a future problem.
He said: “We are aware of this issue and we are currently working with the local CCG and Health Education England to review the current provision of GP services along with other care providers, for example, community and hospital services, to understand the full capacity of the health workforce across the Preston area to ensure suitable future provision is appropriate to meet the needs of the local population.
“The safety and care of patients is our top priority and we will take steps to ensure that all patients in the area continue to have access to high quality, local primary care services.”
Leslie Forsyth, chief executive of Healthwatch Lancashire, said: “It’s very unusual to get quite so many single-handed practitioners because the practice over recent years has been to move away from that.”He added: “I think that the health authorities are going to look at the retirements as an opportunity to bring forward new ideas for a seven-day service, but from a Healthwatch perspective, its very important that local people are involved in making Primary Care service decisions.
“People get very attached to GPs and so it wouldn’t be right that they found out about changes right at the end, without any consultation.”
He added: “In Preston about three of the retiring GPs are all in a similar area, so there is an issue there about a gap in provision.
“The authorities have to make sure that they are doing enough to cope with the resources, and we will be keeping an eye on that.”